The establishment endures

July 31st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The establishment in Britain shows no signs of dying out. Here is an FT article, written by an Oxbridge-educated man, about how Oxbridge-educated men find themselves in positions of power without really needing to exert themselves or show signs of brilliance:

My caste produces the opinions that most British people are expected to swallow. However, the one topic we seldom discuss honestly is our own rule. So let me try to describe how it looks from up here.

We didn’t have to work very hard to get here. Luckily, the British establishment doesn’t demand workaholism, except for a few months around exams. The gentleman dilettante is still honoured (see David Cameron).

Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed — book review

July 25th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Jon Ronson has made a career from taking important topics, and finding the ridiculous element within them. It works pretty well for getting us to pay attention to what he has to say — I certainly look forward to reading his books, in a way I wouldn’t for a drier treatment of the same topic.

In the past he’s looked at extremists, psycopaths and conspiracy heorists. Now he’s looking at online shamings — at how twitter users form into global mobs, piling to humiliate anybody who transgresses the social order.

We are living through “a great renaissance of public shaming“, Ronson argues. We have formed ourselves into a new global public, and there is nothing we like more than humiliating people:

After a while it wasn’t just transgressions we were keenly watchful for. It was misspeakings. Fury at the terribleness of other people had started to consume us a lot. And the rage that swirled around seemed increasingly in disproportion to whatever stupid thing some celebrity had said. It felt different to satire or journalism or criticism. It felt like punishment. In fact it felt weird and empty when there wasn’t anyone to be furious about. The days between shamings felt like days picking fingernails, treading water.

Ronson, with his uncanny ability to persuade anybody to talk to him, manages to arrange interviews with many victims of online shaming. There are Lindsey Stone and Justine Sacco, who achieved online ignominy by tweeting off-colour jokes about veterans and AIDS victims. Or Jonah Lehrer and Mike Daisey, who falsified quotations for print and radio respectively. Or Max Mosley, whose sin was to enjoy S&M while being the son of nazi sympathisers.

Ronson’s light touch doesn’t stop this being an entirely damning attack on a brutal new culture. He puts it in the historical context of justice systems moving away from shaming as being too brutal, even in comparison with torture or capital punishment. “ignominy [being] universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death“, wrote one of the founding fathers, “it would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment

If public punishments used to contain some nod towards justice, the new mob is startling in its obliviousness. When Ronson talks to the perpetrators of public shaming, they seem baffled by the idea that their targets could be seriously hurt by it. They assume that they are ‘punching up’ against victims powerful enough to shrug it off.

The victims, though, seem near-uniformly broken. Months after whatever outbreak of online hatred brought them down, their lives are still shaped by it. Unemployed, plagued by depression and self-loathing, they are ceaselessly reminded of whatever minor infraction they committed. None of Ronsons interviewees have killed themselves, but you feel that’s mostly a matter of luck.

Ronson points out that this shaming is inherently a conservative force. It didn’t seem that way at first, because the early adopters tended to be liberal. As the attacked homophobes and jumped on the cruelty of the Daily Mail, it was possible to believe that the twitter mob would be a force for good.

But now that everybody uses social media, online shaming will simply replicate the views of society. Worse, it will emphasise the conservative tendencies, because the nature of the shaming process is to punish people who are different:

We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.

‘Look!’ we’re saying. ‘WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!’

We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.

Cargoes, revised: the declining trade in cigarette holders

July 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The World Customs Organization has the unenviable job of trying to categorize everything that is traded across borders.

Every few years they update their classification system, adapting to the development of new products and changes in trade patterns.

Poignantly, this means the elimination of archaic goods. The list of categories eliminated between 1992 and 2007 is a record of a lost world:

    • cigar or cigarette holders
    • bow ties
    • headgear of furskin
    • vinyl record players
    • magnetic tapes

Snails narrowly escaped the cut — obviously a good decision, considering that international snail movement is significant enough to feature on this very blog. So did opium, dictionaries & encyclopaedias and silver tableware — items you could imagine sitting in the baggage compartment of the Orient Express, alongside the cigar holders and the fur hats.

Among new commodities: the ape-trade, immortalized a century ago by John Masefield, is belatedly recognized with classifiation 010611: live primates.

RIP John Ball

July 15th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Things cannot go well in England
Nor ever will
Until every thing shall be held in common

Those are the words of John Ball, who on this day in 1381 was hanged for his leadership of the Peasants Revolt.

The Peasants Revolt, unlike almost everything else in the 14th century, feels comprehensible. There is one side who are obviously in the right, and there is the dreamy interest of wondering what might have happened had they not been so thoroughly obliterated.

Paul Foot captures some of that, in a speech from the 600th anniversary of the revolt. It’s appropriately biased and passionate. If he turns the peasants into proto-socialists that’s because, well, they came out with such tantalising rhetoric that the teleology is all but unavoidable.

And the situation does demand a certain degree of righteous indignation:

The fifth member of the gang, the monopolist who joined them, was a man called Richard Lyons. He had discovered (mathematics was very in vogue at the time) that if he paid for the king’s wars, he could get the monopoly over the buying and selling of wool, and that there would be a big profit in it. I’ll explain it, because these things are complicated, He bought the wool for six pounds by order of the king, and he sold it for fourteen pounds by order of the king, and therefore made a profit. Only a few people in society could understand that sort of subtlety, but Lyons made himself extremely rich by this process.

Huxley on machine art

July 14th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

There were, it is true, certain Cubists who liked to paint machines or to represent human figures as though they were the parts of machines. But a machine, after all, is itself a work of art, much more subtle, much more interesting from a formal point of view, than any representation of a machine can be. In other words, a machine is its own highest artistic expression, and merely loses by being s[implified and quintessentialized in a symbolic representation.

— Aldous Huxley, from an essay on Piranesi

Inadvertantly, Huxley is making a strong argument for the artistic potential of computer games. He’s right, I think, that a painting of a machine can only be a shadow of the thing itself. But a game can let you be the creator of the machine, or a cog in the mechanism, to feel from every viewpoint the interconnections of the parts and the necessity of everything being as it is.

[To be fair, Huxley is only talking about still images. Film has a natural affinity for machines — just look at Eisenstein’s fetishism of industry, or even that first Lumiere brothers image of the train arriving. And, as Benjamin points out, there is good reason for this:

…our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.

]

Potemkin villages for the unemployed

July 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Potemkin companies staffed by Europe’s unemployed, going through the motions of running a business in the hope they will one day be able to flip from the imaginary to the real economy.

These companies are all part of an elaborate training network that
effectively operates as a parallel economic universe. For years, the aim
was to train students and unemployed workers looking to make a
transition to different industries. Now they are being used to combat
the alarming rise in long-term unemployment, one of the most pressing
problems to emerge from Europe’s long economic crisis.

The justification for this bizarre system is only partly about training. It’s also about deflecting the malaise of a worker forbidden to work:

being in a workplace — even a simulated one — helps alleviate the psychological confusion and pain that can take hold the longer people go without a job.

I do have a lot of sympathy for this. Certainly I become gloomily restless whenever I don’t have enough to do, and I’ve never been unemployed for a serious length of time.

Still, it is treating the symptom rather than the cause. The cause is a society where identity and social value are determined by employment, where the unemployed are treated as failures. If the system didn’t treat unemployment as disgusting, perhaps people wouldn’t need office play-acting to as psychological band-aid.

And you can’t help wondering if, lurking somewhere under this stone, is a fear that, given more time to themselves, some of the unemployed might start to cause a bit more trouble to the system.

Machines

June 28th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

Alex has an uncanny ability to find things that grab my emotions. Most recently, this poem, about which I can’t say anything other than that I love it:

Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

The machinery of grace is always simple.
This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected
To another of concentric gears,
Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,
Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.
And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.

So this talk, or touch if I were there,
Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,
Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.

If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove

Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.

Michael Donaghy

Nevada, Imogen Binnie (book review)

June 25th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Nevada is a novel that’s psychological in a delightfully straightforward way. No need to reconstruct a character’s psyche from meaningful silences and Freudian cliches. Just swoop in with first-person brain-dumps, stream of consciousness that has been tidied up and wrangled into coherent paragraphs.

This does require fairly introspective characters, but we are in a world where oblivious stoicism would be bafflingly strange. Maria, our protagonist, is self-aware to a fault. She’s a web-nerdy, book-nerdy transwoman, a transplant to New York from nowhereville. Working a deadening bookstore job, not quite able to leave a girlfriend she doesn’t love, twitching for something to shake up her bad-but-bearable life. The secondary characters — the girlfriend, the buddy, the ingenue — are drawn slightly less convincingly than Maria, but still highly self-aware.

Reading Nevada feels like reading Livejournal, and I mean that in an entirely positive way. It’s somebody showing you their head in the most straightforward way possible, within a lightweight road-trip framework that’s only really there to keep the self-analysis trudging along.

Other reviews: one, two, three. Author’s website

How to make a Parisian intellectual stop talking

June 22nd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, a tour of the twitter-fuelled renaissance in public shamings by a self-righteous mob.

Along the way there are, as you’d expect from Ronson, some wonderfully bizarre historical excursions. One looks at Gustave le Bon, grandfather of the study of “crowd psychology”. Le Bon was a wannabe intellectul in late 19th-century France who, after his previous works were deemed too racist and sexist by the Parisian elite (!), finally made his name with a diatribe about the madness of crowds. Then success got to his head…

The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind was, on publication, a runaway success. It was translated into twenty-six languages and gave Le Bon what he’d always wanted – a place at the heart of Parisian society, a place he immediately abused in a weird way. He hosted a series of lunches – Les Dejeuners de Gustave Le Bon – for politicians and prominent society people. He’d sit at the head of the table with a bell by his side. If one of his guests said something he disagreed with he’d pick up the bell and ring it relentlessly until the person stopped talking.

There’s something horrifyingly believable about this. You’ve finally made your way into the elite, and the immortals are begging to join you for dinner. What a power trip to be lord and master of the entire assembly, free to silence anyone who displeases you.

[there’s more here, in the unlikely event of anyone wanting to delve into the sordid history]

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Snail Smuggler

June 21st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

…or if not Mr. Ripley himself, at least his creator.

Patricia Highsmith, creator of fictional con-man The Talented Mr. Ripley, preferred animals to people. In particular she loved snails.

This caused her problems when she moved to France. Aside from the coals to Newcastle aspect, snail trafficking was illegal. This is what dragged the crime author into sins worthy of her characters:

When she later moved to France, Highsmith had to get around the prohibition against bringing live snails into the country. So she smuggled them in, making multiple trips across the border with six to ten of the creatures hidden under each breast

[from Mason Currey, Daily Rituals]

Camelot’s sneakiness

June 20th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

State-promoted gambling is a grim idea at the best of times. But the UK national lottery is scraping the barrel of dishonest promotion.

They’ve just announced some changes. Take a look at that page and see if you can work out what’s going on.

The important bit is in the smaller print, under “Other Changes”:

More numbers to choose from

You will now be able to choose 6 numbers from a total of 59 rather than 49.

Yep, that’s their way of saying “we’ve just dramatically reduced your chances of picking the winning numbers“. Each ticket now has a 1 in 45 million chance at the jackpot, rather than the oh-so-reasonable 1 in 14 million chance beforehand.

They’ve tried to muddy the waters by adding a free ticket prize tier, so they can offer “a better chance of winning a prize“.

All in all, it just makes lotto look like an even more underhanded way to con people out of their money.

June 17th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

In the early 80s, some 35% of Computer Science students in the US were women. Today, that figure is under 20%.

This graph, from NPR’s Planet Money, shows the turning point when women, when gender equality in computer science programmes stopped improving and took a nosedive.

Until the mid-80s, female students had been forming an ever-increasing percentage of CS classes, as in other disciplines. For a while, CS was less male-dominated than medicine or the hard sciences.

Then computers entered the home, and around it grew a male-dominated geek culture, along with an attitude that computers were toys for boys:

In the 1990s, researcher Jane Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, which had one of the top programs in the country. She found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls — even when their girls were really interested in computers.

Strange Coin Denominations

June 15th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Belgium has been getting attention for its snub to France, in the form of a €2.5 coin commemorating the battle of Waterloo.

Belgium 2.5 Euro Coin

It’s a brilliantly snarky piece of coinage. But there are plenty of other odd denomination coins floating around. Portugal already has several €2.50 pieces, though they stick to fairly harmless topics like football.

Then there’s Jersey. The island had previously layered its own oddness on top of the already baroque British currency system, leading to coins worth one thirteenth of a shilling.

Then came decimalisation — the introduction of some form of sanity into the British currency. Out went shillings, but Jersey managed to keep a little strangeness. The Queen’s silver wedding anniversary fell in 1972, giving Jersey an excuse to mint a commemorative coin. A commemorative £2.50 coin. Then, obviously fearing things were still too straightforward, they stuck a crab on the back. Go Jersey!

A final shout-out, though, goes to Argentina, for its utterly baffling 36 centavo note:

Argentina

Some entirely unsurprising tech-world sexism

June 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

A while back, The Toast published a list of sexist comments aimed inflcited on women working in technology. What I find really sad is how utterly unsurprising this is. If anything, I would have expected it to be even worse:

“How did you learn to do all this?!” The ancient Spider-Goddess Llorothaag came to me in a harrowing blood-soaked vision. In exchange for perpetual servitude as her handmaiden, she imparted knowledge of IP subnetting.

“It’s not ‘P.C.’ to say this, but…” Thank you for this helpful preface alerting me to the fact that I can spend the next thirty seconds fantasizing about Star Trek without missing anything important.

“It’s got to be a girlfriend-proof system.” I picture an unruly mob of murderous girlfriends descending upon your Brooklyn apartment, seeking to sate their dark desire for living flesh. They scream and gibber as they prepare to devour all that lies within. You block the door with your home theater system. Thank god: it is girlfriend-proof.

“No, when I complain about ‘geek girls,’ I don’t mean you. You’re a real geek.” All attend! The Arbiter is speaking. In his wisdom, he can tell who is a real geek and who is fake, and especially who is a bitch.

“But—you’re way too nice to be a lesbian!” If the other lesbians that you’ve met have seemed like they were being assholes to you, I might have a theory as to why.

Hot Pod

May 14th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Quick plug for Nick Quah’s Hot Pod, an excellent newsletter on podcasts. It has an acknowledged bias towards emotionally-driven, story-based non-fiction podcasts — the archipelago that has formed around This American Life, Radiolab and the like. But even though that’s not really my thing, I’ve found a number of interesting podcasts through it.

Two Medieval Monks Invent Bestiaries

May 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I hope by now we all accept that Mallory Ortberg is the funniest person on the internet. Or at the very least, the funniest writer whose schtick involves heavy doses of art history.

Latest case in point: Two Medieval Monks Invent Bestiaries:

MONK #1: do birds have meetings
MONK #2: absolutely
they have a Meeting Hat and everything
MONK #1: what do they have meetings about
MONK #2: mostly who gets to wear the meeting hat

The Doors of Perception

May 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

On this day in 1953, Aldous Huxley opened the Doors of Perception. By taking mescaline he loosened the perceptual filters that separated him from the world around him, an experience he recorded on one of the most precise and inspiring descriptions of the hallucinogenic experience:

I took my pill at eleven. An hour and a half later, I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase. The vase contained only three flowers….At breakfast that morning I had been struck by the lively dissonance of its colors. But that was no longer the point. I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation-the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

Huxley was one of the most intellectual and serious of the mid-century psychonauts. He combined the erudite sensibility of the Bloomsbury Set with a long interest in comparative religion and the nature of mysticism.

Ken Kesey saw acid as a tool to build the counterculture. Hunter S Thompson treated it as fuel for the determined hedonist. But Huxley is a child of the Enlightenment, drawn to reason even in the search for creativity and spirituality:

We must learn how to handle words effectively; but at the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.

Literary or scientific, liberal or specialist, all our education is predominantly verbal and therefore fails to accomplish what it is supposed to do. Instead of transforming children into fully developed adults, it turns out students of the natural sciences who are completely unaware of Nature as the primary fact of experience, it inflicts upon the world students of the humanities who know nothing of humanity, their own or anyone else’s.

….

How many philosophers, how many theologians, how many professional educators have had the curiosity to open this Door in the Wall? The answer, for all practical purposes, is, None.

Training spies in Switzerland

April 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The Aargauer Zeitung reports on foreign spies being trained in Switzerland.

Wavecom advertises its products in the USA as a “COMINT solution” for military intelligence services, telecoms authorities and other government agencies…

I do not learn where the customers come from. Wavecom has, though, put a list of its branches on the internet. Besides countries such as the USA, Germany and France, the company also advertises its business in totalitarian states like Russia, China and Vietnam.

Piranesi, and de Quincey’s architectural pipe-dreams

April 26th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Do you dream of architecture?

Thomas de Quincey did, although he blamed it on dope. The original English Opium Eater, de Quincey found his drug-induced dreams were of elaborate buildings:

In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.

de Quincey then makes an extraordinary leap, linking his fantasies to the only artwork that adequately described them. Extraordinary, because he hadn’t even seen the pictures in question:

Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by [Piranesi], called his Dreams [actually, Carceri d’Invenzione, “Imaginary Prisons“] and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever

The sensation which de Quincey imagined in Piranesi was one of “endless growth and self-reproduction”, buildings growing to giddy heights, full of immense machinery and with a menacing air of entrapment.

In describing Piranesi, de Quincey was bang on the money. The Imaginary Prisons are something like a gothic-industrial Escher avant la lettre.

The visions are, as de Quincey suggests, something from an intense dreamscape. Not benign, but not quite nighmarish. There’s even a faint echo of this architectural reverie in the work of Coleridge, de Quincey’s counterpart in drugs as in art appreciation. Kubla Khan, the most famous product of his opium-induced dreams, operates mostly in a mode of pastoral mysticism. But even here there are occasional irruptions of architecture — the pleasure-dome, the walls and towers enclosing its twice five miles of gardens.

What’s more, Coleridge makes explicit something implied by Piranesi and de Quincey. These buildings have not been, could not be, built by humans. Only nature and gods operate on these rules of unstoppable, incomprehensible self-replication. To build the pleasure-dome, Coleridge’s dreamer must transcend humanity, become a god who inspires in others the dread which de Quincey found in Piranesi:

I would build that dome in air, 
That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! 
And all who heard should see them there, 
And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 
His flashing eyes! His floating hair! 
Weave a circle round him thrice, 
And close your eyes with holy dread, 
For he on honey-dew hath fed, 
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge, de Quincey, Piranesi: all are approaching some kind of architectural analog to the Uncanny Valley. Buildings in themselves are not frightening, nor is nature. But buildings behaving as nature — that is a source of ecstatic, hallucinatory horror.

Piranesi’s work all but transposes Kafka into architectural fantasy. “Imaginary Prisons” are by their nature part Metamorphosis, part Castle. They turn civilisation into cancer — rudderless, irrational, merciless and self-perpetuating. And, as with Kafka, reality echoes fantasy well enough to give it extra propulsion.

Piranesi brought into three dimensions — an animation by Gregoire Dupond.

Aldous Huxley managed to pin down some of that beautiful, bureaucratic horror, in terms that could almost come from a back-to-nature critique of industrial civilisation:

The most disquietingly obvious fact about all these dungeons is the perfect pointlessness which reigns throughout. Their architecture is colossal and magnificent…. on the floor stand great machines incapable of doing anything in particular, and from the arches overhead hang ropes that carry nothing except a sickening suggestion of torture. Some of the Prisons are lighted only by narrow windows. Others are half open to the sky, with hints of yet other vaults and walls in the distance. But even where the enclosure is more or less complete, Piranesi always contrives to give the impression that this colossal pointlessness goes on indefinitely, and is co-extensive with the universe.

Piranesi is now somewhat less striking now than he must have been two hundred years ago. He was working one hundred years before Kafka, two hundred before Escher, developing a style that somehow anticipates not just the artistic but also the economic currents that would come generations after his death. And yet his prisons seem as though they could appear in my dreams, just as easily in the dreams that once touched de Quincey.

Maid in London

April 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Maid in London is a blog by a cleaner in a London hotel, about work conditions and her efforts to form a union. It’s excellent, if depressing, reading.

A recent study by a major UK union found that out of 100 housekeepers they surveyed, 84 said they used painkillers every day before coming to work.

Nipping downstairs to the locker room, I realise why so much of the linen is marked or lacking altogether. There’s one guy on the laundry chute. One guy dealing with what a former Linen Porter told me is about four tons of laundry hurtling down a single metal chute from five floors into a massive pile every day. He wears a dust mask.

There used to be two porters on the job, but now there’s just one. The guy struggling with it all is from Romania. His eyes are spritely behind his white mask. He must be about 21. We smile and say hi to each other.